PETALING JAYA: When Mah Meri weaver and dancer Julida Uju was a young girl, she would often hear traditional animal stories from her village elder, Moyang Bandar.
He looked after Julida and her aunt, fellow weaver Maznah Unyan, when their parents attended village meetings at night.
“We were so naughty, so to calm us so we wouldn’t make so much noise at night, he’d tell us a story. Once we listened to him intently, we quieted down. From there, we kept asking him to tell us stories until he ran out of them,” Julida, 54, recalled in an email interview with FMT Lifestyle.
“Once he became tired of telling us stories, he stopped coming to our house. We started missing his animal tales, so we collected shillings to ‘hire’ or ‘pay’ him to tell us stories again. He could buy tobacco with the money we collected. His motivation for storytelling returned and we were so happy!”
Flash forward many years later. Seven of these classic tales are now compiled in “Mah Meri Animal Folklore”, a project by the Gerimis Art Project (GAP), based on oral accounts told by Julida.
Among the stories in this 92-page book are gems such as “The Tortoise and the Eagle”, “The Snail and the Eagle”, and “The Bat and His Seven Siblings”.
Each story provides a thought-provoking look at how the Mah Meri view their environment.
The book is available in English (as written by Ann Marie Chandy) and Malay (as translated by Shazni Bhai). Its creation was made possible thanks to a grant by Tourism Selangor.
According to Julida, stories were usually told in Mah Meri culture as stories and entertainment. However, many were not actively told anymore.
Established in 2018, the GAP aims to reconnect with Malaysia’s Orang Asal (OA) and their histories and traditions through the lens of arts and culture.
The Mah Meri is an indigenous ethnic community native to the western part of Peninsular Malaysia. Julida and Maznah are both part of Tompoq Topoh, an initiative promoting handicrafts and weaving by Mah Meri womenfolk.
In creating this book, GAP co-founders Wen Di Sia and Sharon Yap visited Maznah, 55, and Julida at Kampung Sungai Bumbun, Pulau Carey. Accompanying them in November 2022 was writer Chandy.
The recordings of Julida’s storytelling were then sent to Chandy, who was given a month or so to transcribe and write the book. While there were many fascinating tales to choose from, the team chose seven which they felt would be best for a wide spectrum of readers.
“I hope that readers will be entertained; but also spare a thought for this community, and be more aware of their lifestyle and their oral histories. Hopefully these tales will spark an interest so people will want to know more about the Mah Meri community,” said Chandy.
Accompanying Julida’s stories are lush illustrations of the larger-than-life animal characters, created by Yap. According to her, this was the first time she was using digital illustrations as a medium for book design.
“Translating a story into visuals needs a load of imagination, especially when there are animals to draw. I had to research the body structure of many different animals! But with Julida’s descriptions, designing each animal character was challenging and fun. Her entertaining storytelling helped me draw them in an expressive way,” said Yap.
“I felt this book should be as lively and colourful as Julida’s storytelling, so that’s the art direction I set. I hope it attracts the kids to read.”
Yap said that due to rapid development, some of the animals in the Mah Meri stories no longer existed in their area. It was therefore important to preserve these stories for posterity.
“Can you imagine, after 30 years, if we can still conserve this living culture of the Mah Meri, due to different definitions of ‘value’ for developers and conservationists? The stories are not just for the Mah Meri. They are for us, to help us remember what is important in our environment and culture too,” Yap concluded.
‘Mah Meri Animal Folklore’ can be purchased from selected bookstores or from their website.